Radio Free Vermont Fun, but Uneven


Bill McKibben
Blue River Press, 240 pages

If a crusty Vermonter laced a pint of Ben & Jerry’s with a psychotropic, consumed it, and went off to bed, his dream might come out something like Radio Free Vermont. This uneven book is fun and pokes fun at Corporate America run amok, but the key to reading is embracing the word “fable” in its subtitle. I am a big fan of eco activist/journalist Bill McKibbin—one of the most important voices on climate change in North America. McKibbin has authored sixteen non-fiction books and has written for every publication from The Atlantic and The New York Times to National Geographic and Rolling Stone, but Radio Free Vermont is his first novel. Objectivity demands that I say that as much as I enjoyed the novel’s sentiments and politics, McKibben is, by disposition, a non-fiction writer.

Radio Free Vermont is the sort of book that those of us feeling alienated and hopeless in the Age of Trump want to love. Its central character is Vern Barclay, a radio talk show host weaned on Paul Harvey. He’s not a Vermont native, but at age 72 his Green Mountain pedigree is longer than most. After all, there were fewer than 390,000 Vermont residents in 1960 and now the state is approaching two-thirds of a million. Through a series of unplanned (but not necessarily unwanted) circumstances, Barclay becomes a pirate podcast broadcaster, the leader of a secession movement, and a fugitive from justice. He is aided by OCD technical wiz Perry Alterson; Sylvia, a lesbian firefighter from Starksboro; Trace Harper, a lesbian and former Olympian gold medal biathlete; his acerbic 98-year-old mother; and a host of snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, and backwoods folks who share his view that Big Money is ruining the state’s  environment, character, and sense of community. On Ethan Allen Day* (January 21), Barclay launches a podcast campaign to have secession** placed on the March agenda of Town Meetings across the state—a half-jocular effort initially born out of frustration more than seriousness. As is transpires, it takes on a life of its own. 

The villains include Leslie R. Bruce, Vermont’s Trump-echo governor; the FBI; Walmart; and even some fellow Vermonters scared the secession would put an end to their Social Security checks, bank accounts, federal jobs, access to out-of-state goods, and pensions. In the post-9/11 world, Barclay is easy to package as a terrorist, and McKibben’s novel adopts a caper-and-chase structure punctuated with splashes of satire. Few other states have been as successful at creative-bordering-on-deceptive branding; that is, unless you think its hills truly are alive with shade-grown coffee beans, salsa fixings, cracker trees, and gin wells. McKibben gives this a gentle tweak by having Barclay open his broadcasts with plugs for real Vermont products, especially its craft beers. He also satirizes the promote-at-any-cost crowd by having feckless Governor Bruce build a retractable dome arena, which makes a nice foil for Barclay’s on-the-lam broadcasts that air under the tag line: “underground, underpowered, and “underfoot.”

To borrow the slogan from a very bad no-craft beer, Radio Free Vermont often tastes great, but it’s not terribly filling. Its climactic chase scene and Burlington showdown are absurd even for a fable, the dialogue and plot devices fall on the contrived end of the scale, and those who know Vermont will tell you that it’s not nearly as tolerant and PC as McKibben would have it. To pick one example, I suspect that most of its residents couldn’t even name a Nina Simone song, let alone choose her “O-o-h Child” as their national anthem. Naomi Klein (charitably) links Radio Free Vermont to stories from A Prairie Home Companion. I agree that it has the same sweet intentions, but McKibben is no Garrison Keillor when it comes to literary prowess. We don’t need him to be this; he’s a champion at what he does best: investigative journalism and environmental advocacy. Radio Free Vermont will certainly entertain you and it’s a welcome diversion from the 24/7 bad news coming out of Washington. Read it, but don’t expect McKibben’s insights into the Green Mountain State to be as sharp as what he has to say about green energy.

   Rob Weir

*McKibben is more romantic about Ethan Allen than I. Allen’s  role in the Revolutionary War and the Republic of Vermont is secure, but he was also rash, reckless, a self-promoter and a land speculator. 

**McKibben isn’t being entirely fanciful in imagining an independent Vermont. It was independent immediately after the revolutionary War and, in the 1970s, some back-to-the-land hippies were involved in the “Free Vermont” movement. There is also a small contemporary group the advocates a “Second Vermont Republic.” 

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